In 1692, a young French aristocrat visiting King Louis XIV’s royal court was asked if he knew how to dance. The aristocrat, who went by Montbron, replied with characteristic overconfidence, gloating enough to attract the attention of other courtiers. Rookie mistake. It wasn’t long before the room of nobles asked him to prove it.
It was a truth universally acknowledged that a man pining for a political career in 17th century France needed a dance teacher. The ability to dance was both a social nicety and a political necessity, the birthmark of an aristocratic upbringing. “Good breeding demands that pleasing and easy manner which can only be gained by dancing,” the famed dance teacher Pierre Rameau wrote in 1725. Dancing badly in court wasn’t just humiliating, it was also a potential career killer—and Montbron was all talk and no game.
The aristocrat took to the floor and immediately lost his balance. The audience doubled in laughter. Embarrassed, he tried deflecting attention from his legs with “affected attitudes,” waving his arms and making faces. The move backfired. Everyone laughed louder—including the most important man in the room, King Louis XIV.
“There were reportedly more than two hundred dancing schools in Paris in the 1660s, all devoted to training young noblemen to avoid similar dread breaches of etiquette,” writes Jennifer Homans in Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet. The young aristocrat didn’t show his face in court for a long time after his grand flop.
King Louis XIV, a lifelong ballet dancer, would have it no other way. To him, ballet was more than an art. It was the political currency that kept his country together.
When Louis XIV was 10, he was chased out of France by a band of angry aristocrats who wanted to keep royal powers in check. He had sat atop the throne for four years, but the country was run by adult advisors. The vacuum of power was a symptom of a series of aristocratic uprisings called Frondes.
At first, the rebels of the Fronde didn’t want to overthrow the government; they simply wanted to avoid absolute rule by royals. The government had raised taxes to recover funds from the Thirty Years’ War, and the nobility was opposed to the increase. But when civil war erupted, some factions tried taking control of the crown. By the time the young king returned in 1652 at age 14, his worldview had changed. He returned to Paris forever skeptical of his underlings.
For the rest of his life, Louis would be hell-bent on squashing the nobility’s thirst for power. He believed that God had granted him direct authority, and he fashioned himself after Apollo, the Greek god of the sun. Louis called himself the “Sun King”—the star at the center of France’s universe—and ensured everybody knew it. He formed his own army and stripped aristocrats of their former military duties. As an absolute monarch, he declared: “I am the state.”
Louis did everything in his power to elevate his status. He practiced fencing and vaulting, and trained for hours daily with his personal dancing master, Pierre Beauchamp. It was more than mere exercise: According to the period’s political theory, the state of France was literally embodied by its ruler. Sculpting his muscles and ensuring that his body was perfectly developed and proportioned was a way to demonstrate he was the ultimate source of power, ruling by divine right.
To ensure that the aristocracy didn’t rise up and attempt to seize power from him again, Louis kept the patricians at Versailles within his sights—and perpetually busy. He turned Versailles into a gilded prison, calling in nobles from their far-away estates and forcing them to stay at court, where he could keep a close eye on them.
In a way, life at Versailles—which Louis had built into a palace—took the form of an intricately choreographed dance. Noblemen and women were restricted as to where they could stand, how they were allowed to enter or exit a room, and what type of chair they could sit on. The house was divided into elaborate wings, and inhabitants moved between them via sedan chairs, which functioned as indoor taxicabs. (Only the royal family had their own taxi-chairs. Everybody else had to flag them down.)
Louis XIV’s theory was that nobles…